DIAGNOSIS: Death: A Self-Portrait

by Kate Womersley  

Hirst Head

Death famously has no face, but in a recently exhibited portrait, it has two. Last year at London’s Tate Modern, Damien Hirst displayed ‘With Dead Head’ (1991) as part of his career retrospective. In the dissection laboratories at Leeds University, the young art student gives the camera a Cheshire Cat grin, posing next to the screwed up features of a severed corpse. It’s a picture of glee and faintly disguised disgust, leaving the viewer wondering whether Hirst, after the shutter clicked, recoiled in hysterics at his own daring. What the image does so well is suggest how morbid curiosity dances around questions of propriety. It is embarrassing to be patently excited by death, yet in spite of ourselves, it is also riveting to see such interest. The photograph might make us question how an object becomes a focus of metaphysical contemplation. Can the creative process successfully transform a gory body part into a memento mori? Or then again, it could just be a bit of fun.

These considerations and Hirst’s example come to mind the moment you enter the Wellcome’s new exhibition, Death: A Self-Portrait. Confronted by a tent-sized chandelier by Jodie Carey, 3000 handcrafted plaster femurs and other skeletal bits dangle from the ceiling. The structure, ‘In the Eyes of Others’ (2009), is a reminder that death will get the wealthy as well as the wanting. It is a clever inversion of Hirst’s ‘For the Love of God’ (2007), a cast metal skull encrusted with diamonds. Here, Carey replaces cut-crystal with imitation-bone.


The piece is the latest addition to Richard Harris’s collection of death iconography and ephemera. A Chicago art dealer, his fascination with the edges of mortality rivals Hirst’s, having amassed over 2000 items which range across centuries and cultures, from manuscripts to medical specimens. The Wellcome has made a final cull, choosing 300 to put on display.

The first room shows how death has been personified and allegorized through history. The vanitas form, exemplified here in a seventeenth-century still life by Adriaen Van Utrecht, asks us to brood on life’s transience through its arrangement of perhaps a skull, some plump fruit or wilting flowers, and an hourglass. Utrecht’s painting highlights the historically-specific impact of these cues; today the cluster of objects prompts artistic admiration rather than existential angst.

There are other less rarefied examples of the genre too. At the turn of the twentieth century, the American drug company, Antikamnia, produced a calendar for doctors’ surgeries. Each month’s cartoon skeleton goes about a different vocation: in July he’s a policeman and by November he’s a ‘A Rough Rider’ cowboy. But the company’s output seems to have not only foreshadowed death but also foreshortened life; it later transpired that the Antikamnia compounds were fatally toxic.

Moving on, The Dance of Death is given plenty of space. The scythe of the jigging skeleton will get us all, an image which can be traced back to the 1424 Nuremberg Chronicle and subsequently reached as far as Japan by the 1600s. The skeleton motif becomes a familiar and flexible friend in Harris’ collection, used variously to suggest death’s tragic and comic aspects, standing in for the fate of an individual or the common lot, and showing the material body whilst hinting at the ineffable soul. Highlights include an intricate self-portrait ‘squelettisé’, skeletonised, by James Ensor, and Andy Warhol’s quartet of skeleton photographs for Parkett magazine (1987). Its editor remarked how the images, taken in the year of Warhol’s death, have a curious afterlife as if “pieces of Andy”.

But aren’t skeletons the stuff of fancy dress and urban legend? The ways in which icons lose the seriousness with which they were once invested is well-articulated through the exhibition’s arrangement. A skull doesn’t haunt us in the way it might have once, now that genes and the brain are privileged as the seat of the self. Bones are more likely to be seen as Halloween howlers, as in the amateur photographs displayed towards the end of the exhibition. One shows twenty uniformed men posing with a skeleton in military garb. Next to an image of a man kissing a skull hangs a snap of a boy in his skeleton costume, posing with hands on hips and wearing a jaunty police helmet.

Such pranks are not just for the camera. A cabinet of early twentieth-century metamorphic postcards plays with death’s lighter side. Through a bit of optical skulduggery, in the image of a fleshless head two lovers are visible, whilst another depicts a pair of aristocratic men whose faces provide the shade for the head’s eye-sockets. The caption reads ‘(S) K U L (T) T U R’.

The most interesting theme here is familiar territory for the Wellcome: the interplay between medical science and imaginative art. When is it fitting for bodily objects to bring about aesthetic meditation? Studying death was one of the first ways in which medicine was historically practised. Textbooks such as Eustachi’s 1722 tabulae anatomicae and an eighteenth-century anatomical atlas by Bernard Albinus highlight the intricate mechanical knowledge of a physician which co-exists with expansive philosophical questions about the self and mortality. Eustachi’s frontispiece is at pains to remind the practitioner of the vocation’s moral weight. For a doctor, the spectre of death is both a daily occurrence as well as the feared final curtain against which they strive.

Is it justifiable to elevate what can be painful, messy and undignified? John Isaacs’ 2001 sculpture is a violent sight, softened only slightly by its droll title, ‘Are you still mad at me?’ A plastic manikin sits on a wooden crate as its makeshift plinth, chest sliced open and guts spilling forward between its legs. A photograph from 1900 sounds a similar note of gallows humour, showing a team of medical students behind a brutalised corpse undergoing dissection. Apparently unmoved, one of the men holds the subject’s skull in one hand, his other resting casually on his neighbour’s shoulder. Across the blackboard is written the joke which their blank faces are trying to suppress: ‘When Shall We Meet Again?’ Tasteless, yes, but there is also something fitting in this cold absence of feeling. It would be chaos if surgeons saw every operation as an urgent reminder of life’s frailty.

When shall we next meet

The exhibition has some shortcomings. Non-western cultures seem only tokenly represented. This results, one imagines, from the reliance on Harris’ collection. The show seems almost apologetic for this restriction in a gallery space which is usually celebrated for its multi-media ingenuity. The curators might have done better to make this limitation the show’s strength. I was left wondering what it is about death that mesmerized Harris. The Wellcome gives us, as it were, death’s severed head, but without paying sufficient attention to Harris’ face which, as in Hirst’s self-portrait, lurks alongside.

The majority of the exhibition is oddly intent on emphasizing the half-truth that death is universal and inescapable. But money can, after all, buy life. That is the business of medical innovation. The commissioned piece which dominates the final room brings this into view. David McCandless has designed a statistical illustration of the causes of death in the twentieth century. Stretching across an entire wall, the coloured orbs state that 1680 million people lost their lives to infectious diseases, 225 million died from diarrhoea, whilst 0.5 million individuals bit the dust due to scorpion stings.

On closer inspection, the work tells anything but an unmediated story. McCandless has chosen provocatively political categories. Communism, he reckons, killed 94 million; fascism, 28 million. Democracy caused 15 million deaths, and more particularly, “conflicts waged by US in the name of democracy (1945-99)” totalled 14 million. Abortions are listed as a cause of death (8 million) and  “Catholicism (condom edicts)” led, apparently, to 2 million fatalities as a sub-section of the total STD related deaths. Attending to the small-print, ‘causation’ seems less like a fact and more like an opinion.

Looking back also tempts us to look forward. What will this century’s death map look like? We can safely predict that smallpox won’t be to blame for 400 million fatalities again, but could warfare take more than 130 million lives? The natural world might be cruel or kind. Rising sea-levels could flood the canvas. By prompting these subjunctive narratives, McCandless’ ‘data journalism’ might be today’s most vivid memento mori, our equivalent of the skull on the desk.

Death: A Self-Portrait is at the Wellcome Collection until 24 February 2013.

© Remedia.2013

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